Secret O’ Life

Today is the birthday of singer/songwriter James Taylor; he turns 64. Visiting a friend in Boston in the fall of 1968 I caught a live show with Taylor opening for Joni Mitchell in a basement dive with benches for seats. It was an incredible show for the price of the $3.00 ticket. According to Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, incidentally, Mitchell’s affair with Taylor followed shortly after. Taylor’s debut album on Apple was still a few weeks from being released, but both Taylor and Mitchell had developed followings based on the songs they had contributed to Tom Rush’s Circle Game album earlier that year.

Mitchell was the featured attraction of the show that night. She had only recently arrived on the scene, having turned up with two dozen finely crafted songs that instantly put her on the map and with a restless spirit that has kept her an artist of continuing interest. “Both Sides Now” was in that first batch of songs, and Judy Collins had already turned it into a massive hit by that time.

But Taylor blew me and the rest of the audience away. I took it for granted that he would go on to a successful career, yet its longevity is remarkable set against the struggles with drugs and depression that have punctuated it. His long career now includes five Grammys and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Peter Asher had signed Taylor to Apple for that fist album and then left the company to manage him. Listening to Asher talk about this chapter of his life during his own show at the Dakota in Minneapolis this past January, I was struck by his comments about Taylor. He said that Taylor had been given his name and number in London by a mutual friend. When Taylor hit London, he called and asked if Asher would listen to a demo tape of his songs. Asher loved the songs, but the guitar accompaniment really made an impression. “Here were these fantastic songs, and he was playing them on guitar in the style of Bream or Segovia.” That’s what the man said. He felt that he had heard something special.

You don’t hear anything special in Taylor’s politics. They are of the “shut up and sing” variety. Yet he has a gift for melody and for lyrics that are by turns witty and moving. Among his lesser-known gems is “(I’ve Got to) Stop Thinkin’ ’bout That,” written with his old friend Danny Kortchmar, performed live at New York’s Beacon Theater in the video below. “I hate to think about the way it ended/I hate remembering the things that I said/I dream a dream of love so splendid/I wake up hard in an empty bed….Oh, Lucy, God have mercy, I’ve got to stop thinkin’ ’bout that.”

Let’s bring him back for an encore. I love “Secret O’ Life,” in which he is obviously celebrating the arrival of one of his kids: “Einstein said he could never understand it all/Planets spinning through space/The smile upon your face/Welcome to the human race.” If you hear the late, great Nancy LaMott sing this song on Listen To My Heart, you just might think that Taylor has earned himself a place in the Great American Songbook.